Kolkata has always been a city with dual identities; a dirty city that isn’t worth visiting, a city trapped in dirt and a bygone era; or a regal city, a shining star that weaves the Indian cultural capital, a City of Joy with the British Raj thread. After two days in the city, my first visit, I am definitely leaning towards the latter definition but only by consciously overlooking the former. It is definitely a city that everyone should visit.
Day 1: Our friends had recommended we stay at the Tollygunge Club, a country club in India, located in Tollygunge in south Kolkata. With kids and parents with us, the large open grounds provided just the space we needed to start our day and end our day away from the bustle of the city. The extensive grounds of the club were originally an indigo plantation laid out in 1781 before it became a royal park at the heart of the princely estate of Tipu Sultan. In 1895, the entire property was acquired from the Mysore family by the Tollygunge Club Limited. Sir William Cruikshank, a British painter, established the club as an equestrian sports facility in 1895 to “promote all manner of sports”. It is spread over 100 acres with a clubhouse that is over 200 years old. The stables still have over 50 horses.
The rooms in the club are comfortable with the newer rooms having more modern facilities. Being a member of an affiliate club in India, makes it easy to reserve rooms here but even without any affiliation, visitors can follow a slightly longer process to get rooms. We started the day with the included breakfast, a buffet breakfast of Indian and Continental staples. The breakfast room did have an air of stuffiness, with mainly older patrons, all not very accommodating of our two young, very well behaved kids. One even had the nerve to tell me they were annoying. I gave him a big piece of my mind.
Our first stop was the Birla Mandir, a temple that took over 26 years to construct. It is part of a chain of temples built by the industrial Birla family. The temples are grand, usually built from marble or sandstone and over the years, these temples have become part of the architecture of the cities themselves. It was ironic that one of the richest conglomerates in India can’t afford to pay its staff enough to prevent them for asking for money from visitors.
Next, we headed to Victoria Memorial. Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years and seven months and was the longest serving British monarch until Queen Elizabeth II. The period of her reign is known as the Victorian era, a period of great progress within the United Kingdom, and a great expansion of the British Empire. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British East India Company, which had ruled much of India, was dissolved, and Britain’s possessions and protectorates on the Indian subcontinent were formally incorporated into the British Empire. Victoria took the title “Empress of India” from 1 May 1876 and held it till her death in 1901.
In January 1901, on the death of Queen Victoria, Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, proposed the construction of a grand building with a museum and gardens as a fitting memorial to the Empress. He chose Kolkata, the capital of British India for the memorial. The Prince of Wales, later King George V, laid the foundation stone on 4 January 1906, and it was formally opened to the public in 1921. The capital by then, in 1912, had shifted to Delhi.
The Victoria Memorial’s white Makrana marble reminded me of the Taj Mahal, though without its jaw dropping scale and symmetry. The architect William Emerson was definitely influenced by the styles that existed in Indian architecture along with architectural influences from Egypt to Venice. The gardens of the Victoria Memorial were designed by Lord Redesdale and David Prain and are very well maintained to this day. They provide a much needed public space of congregation, community and respite. Today, the memorial is a museum with two main galleries – the Royal Gallery and the Calcutta gallery and trace and honor the history of the queen and the city of Kolkata through the last two centuries. The central hall has a magnificent dome, with paintings depicting events in Victoria’s life on the sides. Plan to spend half a day here, it is worth it.
After an immersion of history and culture combined with some lengthy walks through the gardens had us ready for lunch. We headed to Park Street to BarBQ for some delicious, authentic, Indo-Chinese food.
Indo-Chinese is a cuisine sub-genre. Restaurants serving this exist in every majorly populated Indian community from San Francisco to London to Melbourne but its roots can be traced to the Chinese immigrants who arrived in Kolkata two centuries ago, mostly the Hakka people who came from Guangdong. They came as sugar-mill workers and trade and craftsmen to benefit from the growing British rule. They created a delicious fusion cuisine that blended Hakka traditions with the spicy flavors of India and so the Hakka Noodles and Gobi Manchurian was born, though today neither might be what existed in the early establishments in the Tiretta Bazaar or Tangra area.
Park Street (officially Mother Teresa Sarani and earlier Burial Ground Road), is a famous thoroughfare in the city of Kolkata India. The street runs through what was once a deer park hence the earlier name. Starting from the Asiatic Society on one end the road it serves as the main commercial and entertainment zones for the city. The nightlife is vibrant, with many restaurants and retail stores resembling New York’s 5th Avenue or Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. We spent an hour walking, exploring the neighborhood and was amazed at the intersection of the rich and the poor, even on a road like this. There were people squatting on the road, outside mansions and havellis, some grand and other with what would have once been a grand facade.
Park Street is a good example of how Kolkata, once one of the richest cities in India, is lost today without the influx of any new money. Multi-acre plots with mansions in dire need of repair dot the street and it is a wonder that the city or its residents haven’t found the money to rebuild. The companies that were Kolkata’s pride no longer exist and the technology sectors that has fueled the rest of India have not found a home in Kolkata. The blame is with the bad policies of the government through the years but the people, most of whom consider themselves, rightfully so, intellectuals and educated, have developed a disdain for commerce and the wealth it brings. It is ironic because most of the privilege that the people of Kolkata have earned to invest in literary and musical pursuits were funded by the money from the business that drove the city and made it affluent. The city needs investments and it is most visible on Park Street.
Flury’s on Park Street is an iconic pastry establishment and the many delicacies are a soothing visual treat from the clash of sights of Park Street.
After a day filled with tourist highlights we went local. To Gariahat Shopping Complex. Gariahat Road is the premier shopping district in South Kolkata. The street markets come alive as the sun sets and the variety of items from handkerchiefs costing a few rupees to saris costing in the lakhs can be found on this road. Typical Bengali saris with Kaantha work or Jamdani work are a specialty. The space under Gariahat flyover hosts one of the most prominent open air public chess playing areas in Kolkata. There are plenty of street vendors here but I resisted the temptation to head to one of the most recognized names in Bengali cuisines in Kolkata.
6 Ballygunge Place is one of the best resturants I have eaten in India. They serve Bengali food, the best kind and have now opened branches in London and New York. But before I complement the food, the space itself is a must see. The architect Abin Chaudhuri took on the renovation in 2015 and brought this old British era mansion to life, providing a space for 150 guests to eat in comfort. The interior decor, credited to Sharbari Datta, along with the seating arrangements, are typically Bengali in style with rich colors of white, gold and grey, termed as “Bangaliana.” Each room has a theme and everything from the walls to the plates follows it. The walls are home to paintings by the artist Mamoni Chitrakar from Pingla, which are in the form of images of cat-and-fish on Kalighat saras (convex shaped pitchers made of earth) and various traditional Bengali themes.
The babu-bibi culture of yesteryear Bengal is best captured in this room on the first floor. “The form, figure and brilliant colour compositions of Lalu Prosad Shaw’s works were transliterated architecturally in the form of hand-painted walls, furniture and lighting design,” said architect Abin Chaudhuri.
The food was a revelation thanks to chef Sushanta Sengupta. I had not eaten Bengali food or maybe I had and it didn’t register. But in 6 Ballygunge it not only registered but has me yearning to go back and eat more. Good food stirs not just the taste buds, but also your memories days, weeks and months later. The food here fits that bill perfectly. The bill by the way while expensive, is very reasonable for international standards.
Start with uniquely named cocktails. For starters – Chana Motorshutir Chop, Cottage cheese stuffed with green peas masala; Mochar Chop, Croquettes of plantain florets; Aloo Chop with Dhonepata Chutney, A road side snack, spiced potato mix dipped in a chickpea batter, deep-fried.
For the main course – Don’t miss the Radha Ballavi –
From their menu – The Bengali gentleman’s Sunday morning staple. this wonderful dish enthrals you with its soft outer shell of fried ghee-smeared flour stuffed with an age-old recipe of gram, ginger, chilli, asafoetida and fennel seeds. Paired with deep-fried potatoes cooked in a spicy gracy this is one dish that can start you day the right way.
Or in our case end our day. For desert – we ordered everything. Mishti Doi, Homemade sweetened yogurt; Indrani, Cottage cheese balls in thickened milk topped with dry-fruits; Baked Sandesh, Sandesh made from channa and rabdi; Chhanar Malpoa, deep-fried flat roundels of homemade cheese dipped in sugar syrup and served with ice cream. Yummy.
Day 2: Kali is synonymous with Calcutta, Jai Kali Culcutta wali! Our taxi driver from the airport to the hotel said that if you want to see Kali as a tourist go to Kalighat Kali Mandir, but if you want reverence go to Kali Mandir in Ramkrishna Ashram and true to his words Kalighat was a tourist trap. We arrived there on a Sunday, by 7:30 am. Tuesdays and Saturdays are super crowded and so are days when there is “bali” or sacrifice. There were touts everywhere and the walk from the street to the temple was like a minefield of dirt, spit and paan. Once we got in, finding a shoe stand was the next challenge as there was no “official shoe stand”. The closer you got to God, the more aggressive the touts got. Make sure you bring your best negotiation and bargaining skills. We initially stood in a general darshan line, but quickly realized that we might be there all day and then found a “reasonable” looking tout. His coworker initially tried to bait and switch us and showed us the deity from afar, but we stood firm and got darshan up close. The deity is beautiful and the 30 seconds of darshan was spectacular! It made up for all the other unpleasantness.
We drove past the historic house from which Subash Chandra Bose escaped from in 1941. This set off a movement that did as much for Indian Independence as the non-violent movement and the slow cooker pressure applied from within India.
Kolkata has a lot of hidden, or less well known spots. One of them is the Marble Palace, a palatial nineteenth-century mansion in North Kolkata. The house was built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mullick, a wealthy Bengali merchant with a passion for collecting works of art. The house continues to be a residence for his 17 descendants, who live in secluded wing of the mansion. It wasn’t easy to get into as the security guard asked for a written permission from the tourism department but quickly allowed us in for a small car parking fee. The exterior of the house is imposing, Neoclassical in style. Surrounded by spacious gardens, and even a small zoo this mansion and its grounds make you forget that you just had to cross some narrow, dirty street to get there.
The real shock value of the house hits you once you enter. There is a very well-educated guide (a small fee to him is necessary too) who will take you around the house. He has a Masters in fine art and is working his way to study further. The mansion is medium sized museum worthy of any European city. There are many sculptures, pieces of Victorian furniture, large chandeliers, clocks, floor to ceiling mirrors on either end of a grand ballroom (the roof had to be removed to bring them in), urns, and royal busts. We saw an original painting by Peter Paul Rubens and across from it an original Raja Ravi Verma painting from 1900 hanging on the wall. These two paintings by themselves are priceless but I am sure will fetch over $100 million dollars if ever bought to market. Phew!
Located next to the palace is the Marble Palace Zoo, the first zoo opened in India, also by Raja Rajendra Mullick. It now primarily serves as an aviary, including peacocks, hornbills, pelicans, storks, and cranes. The menagerie also contains monkeys and several species of deer.
Utterly in shock, we needed some calm. A cruise on the Hooghly river was just right. Vivada Cruises do a great job of take you upstream and back and for three hours we did nothing but enjoy the sights of Kolkata from the comfort of a boat on the river. Lunch was served and as old Bollywood songs played over the radio, we found our peace. On either bank of the Hooghly are ghats. These have existed for centuries, and have allowed the people to come to the river for all its uses. From water to drink to bathing, this was it.
Alongside these ghats are historical buildings. The Sunday lunch cruise takes us all the way to the Belur Math.
Beluṛ Maṭh is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda, the chief disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. In January 1897, Swami Vivekananda arrived in Baranagar, Calcutta with his small group of Western disciples. Two monasteries were founded by him, one at Belur, which became the headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission and the other at Mayavati on the Himalayas, in Champawat District, Uttrakhand, called the Advaita Ashrama. It is located on the west bank of Hooghly River, and the temple is notable for its architecture that fuses Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist art motifs as a symbol of unity of all religions.
The Howrah station lies on the bank and is the gateway to this part of India. The British architect Halsey Ricardo designed the station and it was opened to the public on 1 December 1905. More than 600 passenger trains pass through the station each day requiring its 23 platforms (the largest number of platforms in Indian railways) to serve more than two million passengers per day, the highest train handling capacity of any Indian railway station.
The cruise passes under the Rabindra Setu, a bridge, named after the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Indian and Asian Nobel laureate. We all still know it today as the Howrah Bridge. The bridge is one of four on the Hooghly River and is a famous symbol of Kolkata and West Bengal. It connects the Howrah Station to Kolkata, carrying a daily traffic of approximately 100,000 vehicles and possibly more than 150,000 pedestrians, easily making it the busiest cantilever bridge in the world. The third-longest cantilever bridge at the time of its construction, the Howrah Bridge is currently the sixth-longest bridge of its type in the world.
Three hours on water can force you to find some firm footing on land. Along the Hooghly river, further downstream is the James Prinsep Ghat. This is probably the cleanest of the ghats and the most tourist friendly and also the most romantic spot in Kolkata. The ghat is right under the Vidyasagar Setu, another beautiful bridge spanning the river.
As the sun sets behind the bridge, boats men take visitors on leisurely floats under the bridge in Venetian type gondolas. The pedestrian pathway follows the river and is well used picnic spot. Couples huddle under trees, families relax with cups and plates of the street food being sold and the braver souls, dip whatever part of their body they care least about into the waters at the ghat. If we lived in Kolkata this would be a spot I would visit often.
Dinner was courtesy our Kolkata friends. Desperate to taste real street food, they took us to Khirki Shri Hari Jalpan shop for yummy Bhel, Kolkata’s own version of the staple Indian Street food. Chase it down with some rose flavored juice. We then went to Sharma Tea House for some late-night chai, served in matkas, small earthen pots, and flavored with saffron. Now I put saffron in every cup of chai we make at home.
Kolkata is an attack on your senses. I know its a cliched term, commonly used with anything India but in Kolkata the attack is not just steeped in the present but somehow manages to insert the sense of time into the attack. Gleaming, fast Audi and BMW cars whiz by, but abruptly have to stop for a barefooted man hauling cargo in a hand-drawn rickshaw. Horse-drawn carriages share the road with the very Indian, Hindustan Motors Ambassadors that still serve as taxis. Trams that look like they just came out of a time-travel portal suddenly appear beside you. 100 year old mansions stand begging to stay alive next to glass fronted towers.
It might take a few more decades for Kolkata to catch up to the rest of booming, modern India but hopefully when it does, it still maintains its current charm and doesn’t lose its identity forever.